Mad Men: A Phantom of a Finale
Like Harry Crane in search of a new office, last night's season finale left us wanting more.
Move over, parachute company.
Since we assume you watched too, instead of a straight recap we're discussing the parts of "The Phantom" we found most interesting. Be sure to join in in the comments!
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
Hopefully you do, because everyone in this final episode of season five seems to have one, and they're having varying levels of success keeping them on the QT. We start with Joan, who only a few months or so into her new role as SCD's big financial cheese, is scoping out expansion possibilities for the company. She's interrupted in her mission to the 38th floor by Harry Crane, and has to pretend she pressed the wrong button by accident. Harry, by the by, is still pissed about his crappy office, but not enough so that he's willing to move into Lane's still-empty one. Whatever. Remember earlier this season when Harry was all over these episodes?
Don has a secret—there's a gnarled mass of unresolved guilt and dissatisfaction festering inside him. Well, actually, it's a toothache. But this is Mad Men, land of supremely unsubtle (yet generally effective) metaphors, and so it's not long before Don is being trailed by the ghost of his dead half-brother, Adam, who's like, Dude. IT'S NOT YOUR TOOTH, and then promptly skedaddles.
Then there's Pete's erstwhile paramour, Beth Dawes, whom Pete encounters on the train. Laden with luggage, she distractedly tells Pete that she's going to visit her sister, then disappears into the smoking car. Later, however, she calls Pete at work to confess that she needs to see him. (This leads to my favorite exchange of the episode, in which Pete asks his secretary to go to the lobby and purchase him some Life Savers. "What's wrong with the ones from the machine?" asks the secretary, upon which Pete barks, "I want them fresh!" Poor Pete. Even his secretary refuses to give him the respect he so believes he's entitled to.)
Beth's secret is that she's not visiting her sister; rather, her husband has checked her into a hospital for electroshock treatments, apparently not for the first time. She suggests it's possible that this will be their last time together, and, indeed, when Pete comes to visit her after the treatments, she has no recollection of him or of their affair; secrets on top of secrets have been zapped out of her memory.
Megan's secret? She fell for some kind of scam involving paying for a professional "screen test" that is ostensibly sent out to agents, but most likely isn't. This concerns her visiting mother, who not only believes Megan shouldn't keep this from Don, but can't understand why Megan's is wasting her time "chasing the phantom" of a career in acting. "Not every little girl gets to do what they want," she says. "The world cannot support that many ballerinas." It's harsh—but it's also a little confusing, since it's not clear what Marie does want for her daughter. She urges her to embrace being Don's wife, and give him some children; later, however, she hisses to Megan that she's ungrateful and congratulates herself on not making her own children the center of her world. Marie Calvet, you contain multitudes.
Lane's sad little would-be secret—the pilfered photo of the mystery moll—is out. Rebecca Pryce, visited at home by Don and a $50,000-dollar payout from the company life-insurance policy, confronts him with the photo; for her, it's proof that the firm corrupted her husband and brought about his suicide. "You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition!" she explodes. Her understanding of the picture and the audience's knowledge of how wrong she is pairs nicely, if heartbreakingly, with last episode's darkly comic botched suicide-by-Jaguar as an illustration of Lane as someone whose every move was defined by his stuffed-shirt nature.
And even Roger Sterling, who is nothing if not transparent about his wants and desires, is hiding something: He's been calling Megan and Don's apartment and hanging up, hoping to reach Marie. (We all thought the heavy breathing on the other end of the line was Glen, right?) He's not just looking for a little more of the action she delivered a few episodes back at the American Cancer Society dinner; he's also looking for someone to drop more acid with.
We'll have to wait until next season—and hopefully, it'll come around far sooner than this one did—to find out how much these secrets matter, and whether they'll have repercussions. (I'm a little worried about our parting shot of Roger Sterling, naked and tripping balls and standing next to a window, looking suspiciously like someone under the LSD-fueled illusion that he can fly.) It seems notable that the one character this episode whose narrative was refreshingly free of deceptions was Peggy, thriving in her new job and tasked with flying to Virginia to research the new "ladies cigarette" from Phillip Morris. Peggy knows that she's in a business that can be nakedly brutal, which is underscored when she pulls back her hotel-room curtain to find two shaggy mutts going at it in the parking lot. But the smile that flits across her face when she settled back onto the bed suggests that she has her own little secret—namely, that she knows exactly what she's doing. (Even if, as Ad Age points out, that's going to involve exploiting women's independence to sell them a potentially deadly product.)
The Topaz meeting, in which Ginsberg and Stan wore matching shades of red and mustard and chose diametrically opposing strategies (manic and confrontational for Ginsberg, detached and sardonic for Stan) had lots of potential as an illustration of how the office chemistry has changed since Peggy's departure. Much as I loved this dark, doomy season, I kind of want to see more in the way of loopy office stuff, too.
Even if Pete weren't such an eminently punchable character, I'd be hoping that his wife gets a Feminine Mystique moment next season—I simply don't buy Trudy as the gullible, happy housewife we've been getting lately.
You're going a long way, baby.
Somebody that I used to know
From the early reference of Lane's now very much empty conference room chair, last night's episode, "The Phantom," fixated on absences and moving on. It's appropriate that following a morbid season, Mad Men would end with ghosts. Adam's reoccurring appearances to Don, Beth erasing Pete (and Beth, most importantly) from her life with forced shock therapy, and Peggy's new career outside the walls of SCD (emphasis on the D) all represented phantom presences for our Mad Men. Are any of them, as Roger would say, moving on to something better?
Let's start with the hottest mess and work backwards. After what must have been weeks of Pete fantasizing, Beth Dawes lures him to her hotel room, only to admit to him that she is on the eve of shock therapy, brought on by being "a little blue." While Beth and Pete try to enjoy the end of their affair, Beth attempts to relate to the sadness she sees in Pete(r) Campbell, only to be confronted by his denial of their shared problems. However, once Pete visits Beth in the hospital and realizes that she's already has forgotten who he is, he confronts his reasons for having an affair with her in the first place. Pete explains to Beth, and in turn to himself, that "his friend" was trying to escape the monotonous perfection of his life with the expectation of being able to return to it. However, he's realized that his "real life" is in fact broken beyond repair and he's been running, not vacationing, away from it. By talking to a shell of the person he knew, Pete admits his own unhappiness to himself. Considering that Lane delivered the first of what ended up being many blows to Pete Campbell's kisser, the two characters wound up very similar at the conclusion of this season. Both were unhappy in their lives and attempted to escape it by throwing themselves into work and by holding on to fantasies of other women (how fitting that we were reunited with that photo in Lane's wallet last night). Given the parallels, I'm not entirely sure that I'm off of the Pete Campbell Suicide Watch.
No really, I'm asking for "my friend."
Like post-shock Beth, Adam was a visual representation of an absence in Don's life. In a season where Don was already visited by a ghost of mistakes past, Adam was like a terrifying version of Where's Waldo. (Oh, I see him in the elevator! And there he is in the office! At the dentist!) Adam's very lack of an absence exposes Don's inability to move on, despite suppression. For a character who literally runs (or drives) away from his problems, Adam shows up to haunt Don and make him confront his misdeeds. Last night's Don Draper has the weight of two deaths on his shoulders and is burdened with guilt and secrets. Adam's reappearance seems to be beckoning in the reemergence of an earlier Don Draper, especially given his threat to "hang around" (one of the darker jokes of this season). While Don was able to conquer his hallucination before, he is unable to suppress his memories of Adam. Does this mean that Don's days of suppression are over? If Don can't keep Adam out of his thoughts, it seems like backsliding into the arms of a pretty girl at the bar is now entirely within reason. Is the overwhelming answer to the cliffhanger of last night—"Are here you alone?"—yes?
In a rare moment of relief, we got to see that Peggy has indeed moved on to her new firm and seems to be doing well. SCDP, on the other hand, is feeling her absence BIG TIME. Topaz is unimpressed by Ginsberg's presentation, and who wouldn't be? However, more than the firm missing its female voice, Don's missing a rare source of stability. Peggy has turned out to be strikingly similar to Anna Draper for Don. Both women know him more deeply than most, both have seen him at his lowest moments, and both are relationships completely uncomplicated by sex (a rare feat for the ladies of Mad Men and Don). Peggy's absence at the office in turn represents an absence of security. If he no longer has a rock to hang onto (outside of the odd movie theater run-in), Don could spin out into any version of himself. And given the tormenting reminders of and inability to move on from his failings, we are sure being set up for a train wreck of a Draper next season.
Mad Men, I can't move on!
Considering the pressures Lane Pryce faced last week, SCDP seems to be rolling in the dough. Joan talks of money pouring through the mail and the office is expanding to the floor above them. This seems cruel and unrealistic, right? If only Lane knew that there were apparently piles and piles of cash around the corner!
Megan's scene at the Beauty and the Beast shoot struck me as similar to Betty's long-ago stint as a Coca-Cola stand-in. In addition to Don becoming more Don-like, can we expect to see Megan become more Betty-like? Last night's episode certainly painted her as an unhappy housewife.
And they lived happily ever after... until season six.
Like ripping off a band-aid
During his visit to the hospital to see Beth—a scene I found uncharacteristically moving—Pete describes his affair with her as a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound." He's miserable at home despite Trudy's best efforts—including an artist's rendering of him sitting by the pool!—and his success at work isn't bringing him happiness either. "He needed to feel that he knew something," he says of the friend who is actually himself, "that all of this aging was worth something." Something similar could be said of most of the characters in last night's season finale—they're looking for short-term solutions to lifelong problems, and, unsurprisingly, it isn't working.
Take Roger and Marie, for example. Roger spent a few short weeks in LSD-induced bliss, but now that it's worn off he's looking for another high. Marie's husband and daughter have both disappointed her, and she wants a no-strings-attached hookup to take her mind off things. Though she declines Roger's acid-trip invitation, she accepts his prank call and shacks up with him in an attempt to distract herself (and because, let's face it, that dude could charm the pants off most of us). In a later scene, Roger drops acid by himself. Will these quick fixes solve the deeper problems that inspired them? No. Then again, if they did we'd have no reason to watch next season.
Don's "hot tooth" last night was a clear (maybe even too clear) metaphor for this band-aiding of bigger issues. He tried ignoring it and it got worse, he lied about how bad it was and medicated it with booze and bad decisions (hello everyone on Mad Men) and, ultimately, he had to have it yanked out of his skull before it killed him. At the start of his marriage to Megan (a mere 11 episodes ago!), Don saw new possibilities because he respected and admired her in a way he never did with Betty. As the season has progressed, he's grown to respect her less and less—she left the advertising world, is unsuccessful as an actress, and now, horror of horrors for a bootstrap-puller like Dick Whitman, she wants his help. While most of us would see asking your spouse for help as a natural, even expected move, Don is repulsed by Megan's request and sees it as a sign of failure and weakness. While I think he still loves her (his smile during her weird silent reel looked genuine to me), he no longer sees her as his equal. Last night he even literally walked away from a fantasy starring her, to the comforting arms of a smoky bar and an old fashioned (I don't think it's a coincidence that Don's favorite drink is also a descriptor of his work ethic, personality, and taste in music). While I doubt season six will be a retread of season one—Mad Men is too good for that—I think Don's fidelity has a shorter shelf life than that bourbon he's drinking.
Yep, I'm alone.
If the Twitterverse is to be believed, lots of Mad Men viewers were let down by season five's finale, which was slow in comparison to the two previous episodes. I must say though, that despite some too-on-the-nose imagery, I found it to be a fitting conclusion to this roller coaster of a season. Not only that, it left us with some questions to ponder while we count down to season six: What will become of Don and Megan? Will we get to see Peggy come up with the famous slogan for Virginia Slims? How will Sally handle her newfound womanhood? What actor will play Bobby Draper 5.0? Will occupying a second floor on Madison Avenue mean twice the workplace shenanigans at SCD? I can't wait to find out.
Like so many others, we predicted that season five would be about race politics. It wasn't. Save for one episode that had Dawn going to Peggy's house to make Peggy realize things about herself, the one regular character of color got close to zero screen time. Will that change in season six, or is Mad Men really just poetry for white people?
Continuing to nail the closing credits, Mad Men played us out last night with the theme from You Only Live Twice. The lyrics are, of course, fitting:
You only live twice or so it seems
One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
You drift through the years and life seems tame,
'Til one dream appears and love is its name.
And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on,
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone.
Are more double lives to come in season six? I'll bet my old fashioned on it.
Notable Historical/Cultural References: Barry Goldwater, Howdy Doody Circus Army, Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Roger, is that you?
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